Some Thoughts on Mentorship

Mentorship is implicit in so many of our interactions in business. In many instances it is the defining characteristic of a business relationship. It permeates start up entrepreneurship and working in established organizations. Some days it seems that my entire day is filled with interactions that center on mentorship, and it strikes me that for many of my peers it is the same way. What strikes me, however, is that for as many people who seek to be involved in a mentoring relationship in business, not a great deal of thought goes into the quality of these relationships. Mentorship by its very nature can be the most helpful or most damaging relationship an entrepreneur or junior employee can have. 

Mentorship is a relationship with the following core attributes:

·        A mentor who provides advice and guidance to another person.

·        A mentor who receives the advice and guidance from the mentor.

·        An implicit understanding that the mentor has greater experience and knowledge than the mentee and that experience and knowledge is used in providing the advice and guidance.

·        Inequality in relationship – the mentor has “power” over the mentee – whether actual power due to an organizational or structural aspect (being the “boss” or providing equity capital, as two examples), or moral authority (having more “experience”).

·        The mentee provides something of value to the mentor in exchange for the advice and help.

o   Hard work in a subservient role.

o   Psychic gratification for the mentor.

o   Sometimes a financial component (for example, providing cheap stock to a VC’s limited partners in exchange for advice from the VC).

·        It is a “trust” relationship:

o   There is an expectation that the mentor will look out for the best interests of the mentee.

o   There is an expectation that the mentee will be a loyal follower of the mentor and use the advice.

The mentor relationship is not always permanent. It can exist for brief moments in time, for a specific issue or moment. It is also possible for roles to reverse.  A mentor may become a mentee as expertise changes, or specific events dictate a different skill set being most important. What is clear, however, is that a good mentorship relationship provides for a moment, or many moments in time, access to mutual benefits that can accelerate a start up’s growth or an individual’s career. This makes mentorship very attractive for the mentee, and unfortunately, in many circumstances results in disappointment and abuse. This is because by its very nature a mentorship relationship requires the mentee to be trusting and leave himself open to advice, which may be neither well thought out nor best for the mentee. 

For many the concept of mentorship centers on altruism. It reminds me of some of the thinking that surrounds Angel investing. There is an assumption that anyone who mentors understands the trusting aspects of the relationship, and takes the obligation to provide quality and well thought out guidance seriously. This is similar to the idea that many entrepreneurs have that Angel investors provide capital on better terms because they seek psychic gratification when they invest. The situation is actually much more nuanced.

Looking for mentors and taking their advice can be a very beneficial thing to do, but it should be done carefully and very much with a caveat emptor viewpoint. Simply put – just because someone says that they want to mentor you doesn’t mean that they should. Here are some ways that I would recommend that any potential mentee think about a mentor, and evaluate whether they have a good and valuable mentor relationship. Most of these thoughts apply equally in a startup, or an in established organization, and are provided from the stand point of the mentee.

Don’t Assume that the Mentor Has Your Best Interests in Mind

When Reagan was President he stated that with respect to relations with the Soviet Union the US had to “trust but verify.” He was talking about nuclear arms control, but the same could be said about the mentor/mentee relationship. The mentee should be constantly vigilant on evaluating whether advice is being provided with the mentee’s best interests at heart. Mutual interest is fine (see below), but to merely assume altruism is a big mistake. There are many ways to verify advice – the best way is to have more than one mentor. Other ways are to look for tangible ways that you benefit at least as much, if not more, from the advice you are being given. One hard aspect of this is where the mentee’s benefits are “longer term,” for example, working with a mentor in a corporate environment in exchange for a good review and promotions. It’s a good idea in these situations to have clear metrics for progress expressed and agreed by the mentor and mentee. It’s appropriate and fair for any relationship to have benchmarking.

Don’t Assume that Your Mentor Always Knows Best

It is extremely rare that one person is either always right or always the best informed. Understanding the depth of a mentor’s skills and expertise and his inherent limitations is essential. Don’t take mentorship from anyone who offers it, nor take it from the first person who offers it. Instead, approach a mentor as you would any other important life relationship. Take the time to get to know the person, and their expertise. And, appreciate that over time your relationship with your mentor is likely to change. A good mentor will understand that as the mentee grows and gains experience they will “outgrow” the mentor. If the mentee is getting good advice and working hard to develop, this is inevitable. The best mentor/mentee relationships evolve into friendships, or relationships where the mentor/mentees take turns. Not everyone can make this change.

Don’t Assume Altruism

The best mentor/mentee relationships have mutual benefit. You must understand what the mentor gains, and whether it is a fair trade for what you get back in return. For example, a mentee may be willing to work very hard as a subservient for the long term career benefits of a powerful mentor. But, the mentee should get something tangible in return. Assuming altruism is to assume that benefits are freely given. The reality is that for many mentor/mentee relationships there is no altruism. The best situation is where there is mutual self-interest. In the context of investing or startups we talk about the importance of people having “skin in the game.” This is particularly true for mentor/mentee relationships. 

Seek Mentors Where They Congregate

The best place to find a mentor is where the congregate. For example, people who are willing to be mentors tend to associate with organizations and platforms that allow them to be mentors. Sometimes they take jobs that make mentorship a career advancement skill – for example being a VC or a University professor. Alternatively, they may associate with a not for profit or other organization that is designed to provide mentorship opportunities. In an existing business, mentors tend to congregate in organizational activities that promote organizational development and growth – they tend to be heavily engaged in the organization and not lone wolfs. They are recognized and liked leaders within an organization, and generally already surrounded with one or more mentees.

Not Every Mentorship Organization is Equal

There are many places where mentors congregate. The challenge for entrepreneurs is to figure out which organizations have the best selection of quality mentors. Generally, the best entrepreneurs congregate where the best entrepreneurs are drawn. Therefore, look at the quality of other mentees, both current and prior. A track record of quality companies and mentees coming out of a program, or organization, is a good indication of both high quality mentors, and the likelihood of obtaining good mentors in the future. Additionally, understand the business model of the organization. Who funds it? Private sponsors – service providers? Government? Charitable contributions? The mentees themselves through fees? The mentors? In other words, consider the source carefully. 

Seek Mentors With a Successful Track Record as Mentors

A VC friend of mine talks about how we all leave “footprints in the sand.” The same is true for potential mentors. If you are evaluating them as a mentor for your own entrepreneurial development, then look at their prior success helping others achieve their business goals.  This is very different from evaluating their prior success as business people. Prior success means that they have something to share – it doesn’t mean that they will be a good mentor. What do others say about this person’s advice, experience and motivations? In an organization, you should ask similar questions. Who has the potential mentor helped? The point is that it is very rare for a potential mentor to not have done it before – in fact, I would argue that a mentor who has not left footprints in the sand is either very young, or is not a very good mentor. The bottom line is to seek out prior mentees’ experiences to give you a sense of whether a potential mentor has been effective for others.